GAS PRICES MAY BE GOING through the roof, but it hasn't fazed car buyers yet. Sales figures from the first three months of 2006 show that Americans are still buying just as many gas guzzlers as they were last year. It's not a question of whether that will change but when -- for both economic and environmental reasons.
Competition between the United States and developing nations for reserves is likely to keep pushing up oil prices, and the destructive effects of global warming will only become more evident with time.
The question, then, is this: How will the car of the future be powered? It's more than an academic issue because the answer should guide investments now by both the public and private sectors.
President Bush is a big believer in ethanol and in hydrogen fuel cells. There's a chance he's right about ethanol, but the money being spent on hydrogen -- Bush pledged $1.2 billion for research into fuel cells in 2003, and car makers are investing billions more -- is out of proportion to its near-term potential. Besides the vast challenge of producing hydrogen fuel in a cost-effective way, there's the even bigger problem of building an infrastructure for selling and transporting it. Then there's safety; efforts to install hydrogen filling stations are consistently opposed by people who know all too well what happened with the last major commercial transit experiment involving hydrogen -- the Hindenburg. Affordable fuel-cell cars are highly unlikely to appear before about 2030. That's much too long to wait.
Ethanol is more promising, although it has its own hurdles. Under current methods, ethanol takes more energy to produce than it puts out, but that could change if scientists perfect "cellulosic" ethanol derived from agricultural waste.
Other interesting ideas include bio-diesel and cars built from very light materials that go much farther on a gallon of gas.
But the most compelling arguments suggest that the car of the future will use a technology that already exists and doesn't require a new retail infrastructure: the plug-in hybrid. These cars use an additional battery that can be plugged into a home outlet. In city driving, they can easily run 25 to 35 miles on electricity alone, making them zero-emission, zero-gasoline vehicles for most daily commuters, and they get in excess of 80 miles per gallon. If ethanol becomes a viable fuel, they could even be engineered to run on E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and gasoline.
The plug-in hybrid has its own environmental issues. Producing electricity, especially from coal-fired power plants, can cause pollution. But there are solutions for that as well; technology exists to make even coal-fired power plants cleaner.
Automakers have been unwilling to pursue plug-in hybrids because of the cost of the extra battery, but that could change with a few elegant (and not too expensive) incentives from Washington and much tougher fuel-economy regulations. With all its promise, it's clear that the technology should be getting at least as much attention as hydrogen fuel cells -- or a good deal more.